Two linked stories by Vonda N. McIntyre: “Wings” and “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn.” Alien people abandon their dying planet in a generation ship, but a few are left behind.
Long after the last visitors had left the temple, after time had begun to pass almost unnoticed in a deep, unrippled stream, a shape appeared, far distant, unrecognizable through the thin-film watered-silk patterns of the auroras. It ignored the passages between the light-curtains, which led eventually, slowly, to the only structure on the hills, the only thing on which they could focus. As the shape pushed through the membranes, they roiled darkly, discolored, touching and attaching again. The keeper of the temple could follow the angry violet path of their healing, and his own wounds ached in sympathy. He hugged his long arms closer around his bony knees, and watched the approaching shape with great, reflective eyes, slowly blinking.
The keeper had been alone for so long that his isolation had become a habit; for a moment, he hoped the shape might be a wanderer, lost but needing to continue, so he could point it a direction and send it on its way. He could see, by then, that it was a person. Its progress was direct, purposeful. The keeper wondered how it had found its way, without following the labyrinth. The sky was obscured among the curtains.
He saw that it was tired. It neither faltered nor staggered, but came quite slowly. As it approached, the auroras seemed to impede it. It broke through the final veil, stumbled, fell against the low wall, reached to cross it, failed. The keeper could only see its hand, two black fingers and thumb, tips of silver claws, against gray stone.
He rose and limped across the courtyard, walking faster than when he wished to conceal the limp. A pulse beat in the wrist he touched, too slow, too weak. His hands lingered, touching delicate bones through thin bands of muscle and mole-smooth skin. He rediscovered the sensation of touch, the friction of fur as short as it can be against the same, the warmth of contact. It had been a long time since he had touched another person, even in greeting. His heartbeat quickened.
The thin shape breathed twice, shallowly, quickly, as he touched it. He saw the unnatural angles of its broken bones, and turned it over gently, caressing, so he could pick it up.
He drew back, guiltily. This person was a youth, barely a youth, one who had not yet made a decision.
His hands were more gentle as he picked the youth up — gentle, as one carries a child.
He placed the youth on his own hard bed outside the temple. The collapse must have been from pain. The long third finger of the left hand was broken, and the wing it supported lay crumpled like a smashed ion sail. The keeper opened the dark wing, pulling long frail fingers away from the back of the arm where they had tried to fold. No bone had pierced the skin, nor were the soft membranes torn away or even cut. The wing might heal. The keeper set himself to straightening the bones.
He hoped that care would overcome lack of knowledge, and prevent the youth from being crippled. When he was almost finished, he realized he was being watched. He glanced up.
He managed not to look quickly away. The youth had pastel-green eyes that made his well-formed face ugly. The keeper looked back at the youth’s broken wing, as if that were the natural thing to do. “I’ve done the best I could with thy hand,” he said, speaking as one speaks to children and youths.
“I tried to fly over the auroras.” The tone was defiant, proud, expecting castigation.
“That is dangerous,” the keeper said mildly. Above the temple, the atmosphere was as confused as the light-curtained passages.
“I hoped I would be killed.”
“Deep despair for one so young.”
“It’s dying,” the youth said. “Everything’s dying.”
What happens next?